without you there is no us by suki kimI love to read books that take me to places I will never get to see, or help illuminate cultures that, without an engaging guide, I will never have a chance to understand. One of my favorite books from 2013 that did just that was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, a look at lives of ordinary people in North Korea based on interviews with a growing community of North Koreans who escaped and defected to South Korea. I thought it was a remarkable book.

I revisited life in North Korea last month through a memoir focusing on an entirely different sect of North Korean society – the sons of elite members of the ruling class.

Without You, There Is No Us is a reported memoir, based on journals that author Suki Kim started to keep in 2002. Kim, a native of South Korea who emigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 13, visited North Korea several times between 2008 and 2011 before getting hired to teach English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011. At the time, PUST was the only operating university in the country – all other college students were doing forced labor for the year.

To get the job, Kim had to pose as a Christian missionary and hide her notes and experience as a journalist (most of the faculty and staff at PUST are missionaries, although they don’t explicitly try to convert the students). During the six months that Kim taught at PUST, she built cautious relationships with her students and tried to give them glimpses of the world outside of North Korea, but may not have been able to get through the brainwashing that the regime conducts on a daily basis.

There are so many things that are wonderful and striking about this book. Because of Kim’s limited perspective, the book is deeply personal and focuses almost exclusively on Kim’s reactions to life at PUST, her students and what she discovers through working with them.

I was struck, over and over again, at how much they were like any other college-aged men, curious about girls and excited about sports, while simultaneously holding worldviews that make absolutely no sense to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of the outside world. Kim writes at one point that her students constantly lied to her, but that it was never malicious… just what they’d be groomed to do.

While I wouldn’t say that Without You, There Is No Us is an enjoyable book to read, once I got into the story I had a hard time putting it down. North Korea is probably the most unknown and unknowable place in the world, and while this memoir offers just a glimpse into that country, I think it is an important and well-done look.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. 

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Currently | Rejuvenated by Reading

by Kim on October 19, 2014 · 13 comments

currently october 19 2014

Time and Place | Just after 1 p.m. on my couch with the Vikings game on the background. I’ve been awake for awhile, but spent the morning chilling out with Gilmore Girls.

Eating and Drinking | I’ve got lots of Readathon snacks left for today — gummi bears, peanut butter cups, and cheese rice cakes. Yum.

Reading | There was so much reading this week! Before yesterday’s Readathon I finished two books, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice and Live in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson (Nov. 11 from Harper). And then during the Readathon I finished three more books, Do Zombies Dream of Electric Sheep? by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Ask the Passengers by A.S. King. It was a really good week for books.

Listening | During some non-reading time yesterday I started Love Life by Rob Lowe, his second memoir. It’s more like a series of essays than a straight memoir, but so far it’s got all of the qualities I liked in Stories I Only Tell My Friends.

Cooking | I’ve still got apples left from a batch I got from a coworker, so I think I’m going to make a pie today. We’ll see how that goes — I haven’t made a pie in awhile.

Blogging | This week the blog was all Readathon. Check out this post to see how my day went yesterday.

Feeling | I’m so grateful that I was able to participate in the Readathon yesterday. With the election coming up, work has really gotten busy and stressful. Not necessarily because there’s more to do, but because there’s more to do that challenges my natural introversion. By the time I get home I just need to be alone or be quiet, but I’ve been getting home late and not had that time to recharge. I needed an entire day of just getting lost in books to feel feel energized again.

And with that, I’m going to switch up the currently format a little bit to answer some questions from the end of the event meme. Happy Sunday, everyone!

End of Event Meme

Which hour was most daunting for you?

I usually get tired around Hours 18, but I managed to stay up a bit later than that without feeling too hungover today.

Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?

Station Eleven ended up being a great Readathon book. I was pulled into the story form the first page.

Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Readathon next year?

Nope, I think it runs great. I wish people would be less uptight about whether cheerleaders are visiting them or not… if you want people to interact with, get on Twitter or Goodreads and interact, don’t just sit alone and expect people to find you. Whew, glad to get that off my chest!

What do you think worked really well in this year’s Readathon?

I liked using Storify to collect all of my updates — I’m going to keep that up for my next Readathon.

How many books did you read?

Finished three, made some progress in two others.

What were the names of the books you read?

Do Zombies Dream of Electric Sheep? by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, Love Life by Rob Lowe and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Which book did you enjoy most?

I loved Station Eleven so much. It was incredibly book.

Which did you enjoy least?

I don’t have a least favorite — they were all good in their own way. I’m glad I went with my gut and chose books I was really excited to read, even if they may have been longer than most people go with for the Readathon.

How likely are you to participate in the Readathon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?

I’ll absolutely participate again, probably just as a reader. I like getting to interact with people in my own time and my own ways.

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Happy Fall 2014 Readathon!

October 18, 2014 Readathon

Whee! Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon is finally here! I have seriously been looking forward to this day all week. Work has been a little insane and I could really use a day devoted (almost) entirely to reading. I’ll be doing most of my Readathon updates on Twitter (@kimthedork) and Instagram (kimthedork). I’m also planning to update this post with […]

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The Readathon is Coming!

October 16, 2014 Readathon

The Readathon is coming! This Saturday, October 18 is Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, one of my favorite book nerd days of the year. While I love the spring Readathon, I think the fall Readathon is my favorite — fall always feels like the right time to cuddle in and spend the day with books. I’ll have […]

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The Lost Story of ‘The Lost Tribe of Coney Island’

October 13, 2014 Book Review

American history is full of grand moments, terrible moments and what were they thinking moments. The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice is about one of those strange moments in history made even more bizarre by of the actions of carnival huckster who turned out to be a bigamist and a criminal. From the book […]

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Currently | Football Games and Gilmore Girls

October 12, 2014 Currently

Time and Place | 12:15 p.m. on my couch with my laptop and the Vikings game Eating and Drinking |  Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups — I need to find some real lunch soon. Reading | I didn’t have nearly enough reading time this week, but when I did grab a book I picked up The Lost Tribe […]

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Nonfiction November is Coming Back!

October 9, 2014 Communities

Last year, my dear book blogging friend Leslie (Regular Rumination) asked me if I’d be interested in joining her in a personal challenge to read and write exclusively about nonfiction in November. After we talked a little more, we decided that it would be fun to open up the project to host a low-key celebration of […]

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On Paying Attention to Reading Diversely

October 7, 2014 Musings

Since 2010, I’ve been very intentional about keeping track of all the books I read, along with some basic statistics about them. In addition to things like genre and format, I also tracked, primarily out of curiosity, author gender. As it turns out, without much intentional effort, I tend to read about equal or slightly […]

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Currently | Kicking Off the Season with a Big Book

October 5, 2014 Currently

Time and Place | 9 a.m. at my dad’s computer in the Twin Cities Eating and Drinking | Just water for the moment, but my Grandma is coming over for brunch a bit later so I’m sure we’ll have something delicious. Reading | This week has been all about The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This book, you […]

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September 2014 Wrap-Up and a Look to October

October 3, 2014 Monthly Review

I feel like I started to get some of my reading groove back near the end of September. I’m not sure what clicked, but something must have because I finished eight pretty great books (and only one of them was a comic book!). I’m still struggling a bit with reviews, but getting over slumps is a […]

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